Every aspect of Andrew Bird’s latest release Noble Beast is a marvellous contradiction. Recorded partly in Nashville and in Jeff Tweedy’s Wilco Loft in Chicago, Noble Beast is Bird’s second release on Fat Possum Records. Having started out as a one-man act, the Chicago-based classically-trained violinist gained a loyal following over the course of his last dozen or so releases, with his shows eventually selling out to crowds of thousands. With his Zach Condon-esque vocals, acoustic guitar, violin and carefree whistling, Bird carefully carves out each layer of sound on the album, backed by Martin Dosh (percussion, keys, and looping) and members of Loney Dear.
Recalling the spirit of traditional Americana, Noble Beast is a pastoral interplay of influences as varying as West-African poly-rhythms, gypsy, Afro-Cuban, bossa nova, Old World folk and jazz. Still, its essence encompasses the humble, zealous pioneer spirit of early America, recalling the spacious, lonesome farm-life of the American midwest.
Those who are searching for anthemic hooks and blaring obvious messages will instead be met with gentle melodies, catchy, lulling choruses, and multiple layers of sonic and lyrical structure. Bird’s song-writing is subtle, nuanced, and lyrically ambiguous. Abounding with non sequiturs, the seemingly nonsensical sequences of words are quirky and endearing. Singing about “investments of translucent alabaster,” “proto-Sanskrit Minoans” and “calcified arithmetists,” Bird wistfully indulges his fancy for the offbeat, casually whistling through it all, without an air of pretence or intellectual superiority that could characterize lyrics of such verbal idiosyncrasy.
Documenting the creative process behind the development of Noble Beast on the New York Times blog “Measure for Measure,” Bird admits that melodies come to him naturally, while words take time to fit into the composition. “What is becoming more challenging of late is dealing with so many fully formed melodies that are unwilling to change their shape for any word. So writing lyrics becomes like running multiple code-breaking programs in your head until just the right word with just the right number of syllables, tone of vowel and finally some semblance of meaning all snap into place,” Bird writes.
Along with Sufjan Stevens, Cass McCombs, Espers, and Vetiver, Andrew Bird shimmers in the community of New Weird Americana, as his Noble Beast’s cyclical melodies and rhythms drone and giggle, soldiering on through fits and dizzy spells of inspiration.
With his penchant for integrating Old World influences and skilled musicianship with a breezy nonchalance, this diligent wordsmith offers us a charming collection of captivating tracks like the revivalist “Masterswarm,” the twangy “Souverian,” and the plucky “Effigy.” Balancing emotional sincerity with humour and wit, the songs are pleasant and lucid. A noble leap in the evolution of Andrew Bird’s songwriting prowess.